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HomeProfilesMarito's Coffee and Things: A family's tale of resilience and new beginnings

Marito’s Coffee and Things: A family’s tale of resilience and new beginnings

Marito lived a comfortable life with his wife, Lily, and their four children in the Philippines, but danger was knocking at his door.

They had a private driver, a gated property, and high-powered jobs. Marito worked as a political campaign advisor and liaison for political prisoners. Lily was the principal of an exclusive private school. And they were activists.

But they saw a dark future coming for their children.

Marito’s eldest daughter, Maria, remembers a night two gunmen came into their home looking for her father while her parents were away on a business trip.

“I can’t overstate how dangerous it felt being in that space,” she said.

Despite their hopes of making change in the Philippines, they “packed their lives into 12 boxes” and came to Canada to give their children a better life.

Now, Marito, 60, and Lily, 56, Mendoza are chasing their own dreams of operating a “happy” cafe in Whitby, Ont.

“I was always having that vision of seeing myself having my own coffee shop,” Marito said. “It’s my dream.”

A close-up photo of a man pouring oat milk into a stainless steel milk pitcher for making espresso drinks.
Marito Mendoza, 60, pours oat milk into a pitcher to steam at his cafe, Marito's Coffee and Things, in Whitby, Ont. on Oct. 31. Mendoza offers several milk alternatives for customers who take their espresso drinks without dairy. The cafe doesn't have non-dairy food options for customers looking for a cow-free treat. Photo credit: Andrew Neary

But moving to Canada wasn’t easy, according to Lily.

She said, like many immigrants, they experienced “social demotion” and prejudice.

They were highly educated, each with a master’s degree, but she said they had to start over.

For their eldest daughter, Maria Mendoza Camba, 35, immigrating meant restarting her post-secondary education.

Before moving, she was studying law and lecturing at a university. So, she tried to continue her legal studies in Canada.

Maria said she went to a university fair, and a recruiter laughed at her and said, “Did you say you’re from the Philippines? You’re not going to get in. You’re just not good enough.”

According to Maria, the change was tough for her whole family, but her dad most of all.

“I think my dad was one of the hardest hit,” she said. “I remember him crying every single day.”

“Until the time that they built the cafe, it was really, really difficult for him to find purpose for himself,” she said.

A woman smiles while working on a laptop.
Lily Mendoza, 56, poses for photo with her work laptop at Marito's Coffee and Things in Whitby, Ont. on Oct. 31. Mendoza co-owns the cafe with her husband Marito while maintaining a job as an insurance agent at Sun Life. Mendoza helped her husband get a job at Sun Life twice before he started the cafe. Photo credit: Andrew Neary

Lily said she got into the insurance industry, working as an advisor at Sun Life Financial, and she encouraged Marito to work with her.

He passed the provincial exam but decided it wasn’t right for him.

Marito said he worked several jobs over the next few years. He was a handyman, a carpenter, an inventor, and even returned to Sun Life for another two years.

But it still wasn’t right, so he found other jobs.

Then one day, while working as a property manager in Whitby, he had an idea. The tenants of the building’s corner unit left, and the busy plaza didn’t have a coffee shop.

Marito got the landlord’s approval, but it was a huge risk.

Marito and Lily said they went back and forth but knew “each other’s inclination” after 36 years of marriage.

They investigated and projected the cost of renovation, and the age of the building became a factor.

A photo of a light blue room with three cloth-covered tables, wooden chairs, and a mix of paintings with a classic retro look.
A seating area with plating for high tea at Marito’s Coffee and Things in Whitby, in October. Owners Marito and Lily Mendoza said they chose specific furniture to create the “retro” feel they wanted. Photo credit: Andrew Neary

“This is a century building, and everything was not up to code,” Lily said. “If you don’t touch it, no problem. But once you touch it and convert it into a food premise, you have to bring up everything.”

She said the costs were too high, so they walked away from the deal.

But two weeks later they went back to the landlord and decided to fully commit.

“We told the landlord that we’re going to do it. That’s it,” Marito said. “We sold our car, everything, to put up the funds we needed to start the project.”

Lily said they started construction in December 2022, and Marito used his skills as a handyman to ensure they met standards.

In March 2023, they had their final fire inspection, and they opened right away. Marito’s Coffee and Things was ready for customers.

“The following day, we opened it because we couldn’t wait any longer,” Marito said. “I remember I was telling the landlord that we have to open right away because we need to sell.”

Since opening, Marito said he still runs the day-to-day operations, and Lily helps while maintaining her job as an advisor.

A woman uses tongs to pick up a baked good from a cafe display.
Hannah Hunt, 22, collects a scone from the baked goods display at Marito's Coffee and Things in Whitby, Ont., on Oct. 31. Hunt said she learned about the cafe through her relatives who work in the same plaza. She said she's worked at Marito's since they opened and wants to "stay as long as I can, because I love it there so much." Photo credit: Andrew Neary

Hannah Hunt, 22, a staff member at the cafe, said she loves working there.

“Honestly, it’s like one of my favourite jobs I’ve ever had,” she said. “I think part of it is because of the family that owns the business. They treat you like you’re part of their family. People can feel that they’re really welcoming and very warm. So, I yeah, I love this job.”

And their children are thriving, too.

Maria achieved her master of arts degree, started her own family, and works as the lead strategist for equity, diversity and inclusion at EY Canada.

Lily said her middle daughters are doing well, one staying home with her own children and the other pursuing a singing career.

Diego, their youngest son, is helping at the cafe while he applies to study for a master’s degree in the U.K. so he can achieve “his dream career of being an automotive engineer for Formula One,” Lily said.

A barista holds out a beige ceramic mug full of coffee to serve to a customer.
Marito Mendoza, 60, poses for a photo serving coffee at his cafe, Marito's Coffee and Things, in Whitby in October. Mendoza co-owns the coffee shop with his wife Lily, who he said helps manage while he maintains the day-to-day operations. Mendoza said he is passionate about the customer service experience, even making sure the music "jives" with the whole environment for guests. Photo credit: Andrew Neary

Plus, the shop is crossing business milestones.

Lily said they are celebrating their wins, such as days with more than $1000 in sales or good customer feedback.

“We have received different adjectives for the shop,” Lily said. “Happy, cozy, quaint, relaxing, but the best one that I love is happy.”

Then Marito sat back in his chair, surrounded by his carefully chosen art, his vintage wood-panelled radio, and tables covered in tiered dessert displays and decorated porcelain cups for high tea.

He looked at his wife, still sitting next to him.

“All we need to do is really keep the focus,” Marito said. “It’s not far-fetched.”

“We can do it. We can do it.”